Ocala sound engineer saw Jackson at his best
By Joe Callahan
OCALA - Mick Jagger didn't hesitate when Michael Jackson told the Rolling Stones singer to warm up his vocal cords before recording their duet "State of Shock" in 1983.
It was a classic recording session a year after "Thriller" had cemented Jackson's reputation as the King of Pop, according to an Ocala resident who worked alongside Jackson for two decades.
"Mick didn't hesitate," said Bruce Swedien, who recorded and mixed many Jackson albums, including "Off the Wall" and "Thriller" - considered among the best all time.
"By then, everyone knew how good Michael was," he continued. "If Michael Jackson says warm up, you warm up - even if you are Mick Jagger."
Swedien, 75, lives quietly at his Ocala horse farm and still records albums for young local talent in his elaborate studio.
Swedien, who has worked with many legends, from Paul McCartney to Duke Ellington, talked about the short life of Jackson, who at age 50, died Thursday.
The sound engineer even shares songwriting credit with Jackson on the song "Jam," a No. 3 hit on the R&B charts in 1992.
Swedien said he normally records a singer about a dozen times before getting enough to mix together a perfect vocal track for an album.
With Jackson, it only took two to four takes. And one of those takes would be perfect on its own. But hours of preparation preceded recording.
They would change lyrics, tempo and pitch, working for days and hours on getting the song just right before finalizing the track. Swedien said Thriller was recorded and completed in six months.
He credits music producer Quincy Jones for creating the sound of Michael Jackson.
"'Off the Wall' and 'Thriller' showed Quincy's kaleidoscopic approach," said Swedien, who described Jones as a musical genius.
However, it was Jackson's talent and drive for perfection that kept the singer practicing all night before a recording.
That's why a typical recording session started late.
"We were up at the crack of noon," Swedien said, adding that Jackson never started singing until after he warmed up his voice thoroughly for a typical 10-hour day.
Swedien called Jackson a perfect gentleman and "consummate professional" throughout all the meetings.
"He never drank coffee," Swedien remembered. "He never drank alcohol. He was a fussy eater. I guess he was what you would call a health nut."
While some may remember Michael Jackson for his well-publicized idiosyncrasies, Swedien will remember him as one of the best prepared artists he ever worked with.
And Swedien should know. He's recorded many of the greats, including Jagger, McCartney, Muddy Waters, Barbara Streisand and Lena Horne.
"He never came in half-stepping," Swedien said. "Michael was always prepared. I never recorded Michael when he had the lyrics in front of him."
Swedien said that Jackson's dedication to his craft was unique. During album recordings, which would sometimes last more than six months, Jackson rarely rested.
"He would work on the lyrics all of the time," said Swedien, whose book "In the Studio with Michael Jackson" is expected to be released in September.
Swedien said his respect for Jackson makes him reluctant to talk about a financial dispute he had with the star. In 2007, Swedien claimed Jackson owed him $500,000 in royalties.
"I love Michael Jackson," Swedien said when asked about the controversy. "He made me a ton of money."